There was little shaking the feeling of disappointment during the 10th edition of Neon Reverb last week. Aside from a handful of caveats that rewarded one’s attendance, there was no escaping that something this time around was missing — be it attendees, creative programming or, most of all, the enthusiasm seen in previous years.
In the past, Neon Reverb lured both supporters and friends of Vegas bands, as well as curious outsiders looking for an excuse to sample the city’s original musicians, and the crowds suggested a groundswell of interest in a scene that typically feels underappreciated and underexposed. Part of that heightened buzz stemmed from well-programmed showcases and the artists who stepped it up during their performances. Who can forget the flawless roster from the fall 2010 closing party, or Afghan Raiders’ explosive set inside the Beauty Bar six months earlier?
It’s not fair to hold the March 20-24 edition against the festival’s best-ever year; back then, local artistry pushed itself to new heights, and nowadays there are fewer participating promoters and venues. But shrinking support, frenzy and financial resources have reduced Neon Reverb to a cluster of merely well-scheduled nights you could plausibly experience at any time during the year, and less like a marquee week of music events compelling both loyalists and newbies to spend their weekend nights downtown.
Case in point: March 21’s Slovenly Recordings’ garage-fest at The Bunkhouse. Usually you’d be more likely to catch an international lineup like the one during this showcase at the Double Down than a venue off Fremont Street, so that was unique. But the label and its bands had little drawing power; only 50 or so people thought the event merited attendance. Worse, it was frustrating, even sort of embarrassing, to see quality bands like Los Vigilantes and Las Ardillas play for 10, maybe 20 onlookers. Maybe for those people who bemoan the so-called lack of cultural diversity in Las Vegas, Spanish-language punk rock doesn’t count.
Equally awkward was the closing show on March 24 at the Beauty Bar, where a similarly diminutive attendance greeted roster-toppers Gun Outfit and Milk Music. The silence was deafening between numbers played by the former band, which offered the sort of ethereal, lullabye-like minimalism that felt soothing on a Sunday night. A slightly bigger crowd received Milk Music, though it should have been insulted by a group that nonchalantly treated its performance like a rehearsal, especially when its members frequently talked amongst themselves before starting a song — which typically leaned way too heavily on Dinosaur Jr., minus the chops and hooks.
March 22’s album-release two-fer felt more like the sort of programming bait for which Neon Reverb is known. Not only are The Clydesdale and Coastwest Unrest two of Las Vegas’ best bands, but their accomplished and unique takes on Americana music parallels the creative spirit of the festival. But their big night was marred by chilly weather, a subdued (and, frankly, not very large) crowd and technical difficulties. (And what empowered the sound guy to pick up a microphone and offer his commentary during The Clydesdale’s set? How about letting the audience’s applause speak for itself and fixing the shitty sound coming out of the PA?) Hindsight being what it is, this showcase should have been staged entirely indoors, filling the room with the right amount of bodies and energy to make it feel more momentous.
My favorite set actually came the following night, at the Beauty Bar patio. No, it wasn’t from Old Man Markley, which nonetheless offered a spirited bluegrass-punk set, but Mercy Music, which consisted solely of singer/guitarist Brendan Scholz and his unadulterated electric guitar. The raw emotion in his voice and the classic melodicism of his straightforward rockers not only meant each of his songs was a direct hit, but made it impossible to be distracted by anything else (except for a heckler, who was eventually chased off by a performer/crowd team effort).
So where does Neon Reverb go from here? It’s tough to say. The money is just not there, despite the Zappos sponsorship; and with Jason Aragon running the entire festival himself — and still performing with all his bands! — ambition must make way for pragmatism. And with Life is Beautiful due in the fall, I expect the older downtown festival to scale it down even further.
With regard to the touring acts, Neon Reverb should balance the niche and esoteric bands with the sort of crossover, upbeat indie rock groups that draw, give off energy and make for a good time — like the national equivalents of, say, A Crowd of Small Adventures, The Skooners and Big Friendly Corporation. They don’t have to be Coachella darlings, but they should be … fun.
And with local bands, some creativity should be employed. How about a set that requires a given act to do something different? I’m personally meh about these tribute nights where everyone covers a particular musical icon, but they draw well and encourage collaboration among musicians in different bands. Why not schedule one of those for the festival? Or reunite a dormant or defunct local band? I’d love to see one of our popular bands play a set of their most well-known songs, all sung by or with other singers. Or a one-night-only Vegas supergroup? I’m there!
And I bet many of those local music enthusiasts who didn’t show this time around would be, too.